A person dies in front of a train every 31 hours in the UK. They may have accidentally fallen but, more often, they’ve jumped.
Sometimes they will be neatly decapitated – or they will be, what is known in the trade, “a popper”, their body exploding with a hard squelchy thud, blood and body parts smeared along every carriage on the train.
Actor and playwright Kieran Knowles has followed up his acclaimed “buried alive” wartime drama, Operation Crucible, with 31 Hours, a harrowing, darkly witty and haunting story that finds humanity in the most inhumane of acts.
It has just opened at London’s Bunker Theatre and I walked away from last night’s performance with a newfound respect for the specialist cleaning crews who turn out to tackle these jobs.
These deep cleaners clear up the aftermath of a rail death. I can’t imagine a more horrific job but someone has to do it.
In 31 Hours the effect it has on the men’s lives is understandably profound. How do you explain to your kids that you pick, pack, and disinfect the pulped remains of a human being?
“Fucking hell,” says John as they face another mess to bleach and swab.
Throughout the 90 minute production the audience is bombarded with a lot of facts and figures about who jumps, why, how many.
It’s a bit like reading a Wikipedia page on the subject..Everything you ever wanted to know about rail suicides..but director, Abigail Graham’s, snappy presentation and the gallows humour, camaraderie and rapport between the four-man team, keeps you riveted to their narrative.
Throughout the detailed, often graphic, exposition, audiences learn snippets about the men’s lives.
But, so typical of men, the foursome find it hard to talk, bottling up their emotions until one of them can’t bear it any longer.
You don’t learn much but there’s enough to make an emotional connection. At work they clock on for a shift, get the job done, and go home. It’s not something they want to dwell on.
Here the group also role play, as witnesses, victims, bosses and relatives, to flesh out a story which has death at its heart but a clear message that there is help to prevent anyone from carrying out this horrific method of dispatch.
I was almost late getting to the theatre because of “a person on the tracks.” It’s a regular occurrence for anyone who regularly uses the train or London tube.
In 31 Hours Knowles’ well-observed dialogue picks up on the matter. “Selfish bastard,” one traveller complains, his journey delayed because of an incident on the line. Others take photos with their mobiles, not caring that it is someone’s son, father or husband who has thrown themselves in front of a 140mph Virgin Pendolino.
In one scene Peter, a solicitor, who has been fiddling the firm’s accounts to fund his addiction to prostitutes, kills himself.
It’s Abdul Salis’ John who re-enacts the moment.
“Peter’s a dick head, ” says an unsympathetic Neil (Salvatore D’Aquilla). Why, he asks?
Because it’s rush hour when he does it and the station is packed. There is a party of school children on the platform, going on a museum trip.
“Only they don’t make it..because you are all over them – literally – like a wave of gunge.”
31 Hours isn’t for the faint-hearted. Hearing the stories behind the jumpers will leave you shocked, moved, even traumatised, but there is a lot of warmth and black humour in the group’s relationship to offset its darkest moments.
All four actors give outstanding performances, keeping up a rhythmic banter that doesn’t miss a beat. Salis provides the group with an anchor in John who fell into working on the railways after messing up at school.
Twenty years later he’s still here, living one day at a time, spending his wages on holidays he really can’t afford.
Aquilla’s Neil is jumpy, emotional and stressed about his wife and their new baby. He sits on stage, his leg trembling, unable to cope with the pressure from home and the nature of their work.
“I’m treading water without any idea how to swim. I’m kicking frantically, hoping to stay afloat,” he says.
We learn most about Ste thanks to an compelling performance by James Wallwork. Married at 19, divorced at 23, he now only sees his 10-year-old son at weekends when they share fish finger butties with loads of brown sauce.
Now there’s no-one in his life, nobody to talk to. It’s hard.
Finally Jack the Lad, Doug (powerfully played by Jack Sunderland) who may behave like the class clown but, deep inside, is finding it hard to maintain his composure. His temper is getting the better of him, he’s on tablets. Doug’s a pressure cooker waiting to blow and Sunderland is fiercely intense.
Knowles cleverly keeps the play’s denouement under wraps throughout – and offers his director the chance to play Russian Roulette with the ending.
31 Hours is well-written, deeply absorbing & tackles a delicate subject with an emotional sensitivity – despite the sometimes brutal, blokey, dialogue.
Playing at the Bunker Theatre until October 28.
31 Hours is well-written, deeply absorbing & tackling a delicate subject with an emotional sensitivity - despite the sometimes brutal, blokey dialogue.